William G. Thomas III has earned the 2021 Best Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) for his book "A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation's Founding to the Civil War."
The prize is awarded to an original monograph that makes a significant contribution to the historiography of the early American republic. SHEAR's scholars explore the events and the meaning of United States history between 1776 and 1861.
"Resistance to slavery in the courtroom has been a major theme of recent historiography," the prize committee wrote. "In A Question of Freedom, William G. Thomas III has produced an instant classic of the genre, accessible, moving, infuriating and humane...a profound and penetrating analysis of freedom suits brought by enslaved families."
The book outlines the hundreds of lawsuits, and the stories behind them, filed between 1787 and 1861 by families in Prince George's County, Maryland for their freedom. Thomas' digital humanities project, "O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law and Family," provided much of the source material.
"Deeply researched, beautifully written, and powerfully resonant with our current politics, William Thomas's A Question of Freedom was the unanimous choice," the committee wrote.
Thomas is a professor and the John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities in the Department of History. He is currently serving as Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education in the College of Arts and Sciences and as a fellow with the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.